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COIN: the effectiveness of counterinsurgency strategies in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2014
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The Afghanistan War, from 2001 until 2014, has been the longest military commitment for both the United States of America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. In charting the longevity of this ongoing conflict, this essay will first define ‘insurgency’ conceptually and specifically within the context of modern Afghanistan. It will then examine the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which gave rise to the US’s ‘War on Terror’ justifying in part its military involvement in Afghanistan and argue that the US and NATO counterinsurgency tactics have been both effective and ineffectual to varying degrees. It is important to note that although Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain and the US and NATO involvement has prevented, for the interim at least, Afghanistan from becoming a failed state. In achieving this important objective it can be argued that US and NATO counterinsurgency strategy, ranging between the militarization of aid to the Counterinsurgency Doctrine (COIN), can take a large amount of credit. That is not to say that these strategies have not previously been poorly implemented, nor does it excuse the failings of broader US political and military strategy in its decision to invade Iraq, whilst already engaged in Afghanistan and neglecting the Taliban’s penetration and influence in Pakistan at significant cost to its prime counter-insurgency objective. Significantly, too, the poor relationship between US President Obama and the previous Afghan President Karzai, in crucial intervals during the conflict, undermined larger strategic objectives that will be examined.  Ultimately, it was the US’s ‘Iraq distraction’ which was a key factor in the undermining of existing US and NATO counterinsurgency strategy prior to 2004 which continues to have an enduring impact in the face of a waning or distracted political will in the face of a Taliban resurgence.

Before examining US and NATO counter-insurgency strategies in Afghanistan this essay will define ‘insurgency’ as a key concept. ‘Insurgency’ is defined as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify or challenge political control of a region” (US Government, 2009, p. 2). Although this definition offers an apt snapshot of insurgency it does little to highlight the ongoing insurgency situation within Afghanistan. According to the International Crisis Group: Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide (2014) the insurgency experienced in Afghanistan has entered a new phase: the existing trend is that of “escalating violence and insurgent attacks” against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), coinciding also with the gradual withdraw of US and NATO forces. As yet the insurgents have not taken any of Afghanistan’s main cities, such as Kabul, however, the outlying districts and regions are becoming increasingly unruly and unpredictable. With little trust emplaced in successive Afghan Governments, or the working capability of the ANSF allies, insurgent activity is becoming more emboldened, potent and dangerous as evidenced by terror tactics such as kidnapping, shootings and suicide bombings, along with the “blocking [of] roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres” (International Crisis Group, 2014). But who is perpetrating this escalatory violence? The Taliban have proved impossible to overthrow completely epitomising what it is to be a successful insurgency. The Taliban, belonging to the homogenously dominant national ethnicity (Pashtun), use terror tactics to great effect, and, importantly, are “representatives of an ideology as much as they are an army” (Fergusson, 2010, p. 15).  Although the Taliban are considered the main protagonist against the Afghan Government, there seems to be an increasingly complex mosaic of competing interest groups contributing to further instability (such as jihadists, regional warlords, opium drug barons and corrupt Government Officials). One may argue that Afghanistan is simply reverting back to a state of historical fragmentation seen before Western foreign intervention (also during the 19th Century British-Russian geostrategic rivalry), however, this is perhaps too simplistic in light of the US/NATO ‘War on Terror’ and the globalization of terrorism which has intensified and multiplied the rival factions and raised the stakes, especially with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The 2001 ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks on the US evoked a course of military response largely set on short-sighted retribution rather than a measured, comprehensive and nuanced political and military strategy against the Taliban. Such was the outcry of emotion and the resultant political resolve to inflict US military devastation on those responsible that little objective consideration was given to the possibility of a protracted occupation, wherever and for however long the military missions would take. Responsibility for 9/11 was attributed by the US to a terrorist organization called Al Qaeda, which it was discovered, was operating with relative impunity within Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (Middleton, 2011, p. 23). The military response by the US was swift and uncompromising. The overall strategy and tactics of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ were clear: to go in, find/capture/kill Osama Bin Laden, destroy Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power (CNN Library, 2014). As the conflict developed the US looked to adjust strategy from the short to the medium term. Moreover, the mobilisation of NATO, for the first time outside the confines of Europe, into the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) gave the intervention the weight of legitimacy (‘About ISAF’, n.d.). The US looked to mitigate against the threat of a local insurgency, and consequently having to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy themselves, by drafting Hamid Karzai in as interim Afghan President until some loose form of democracy could be established (Rashid, 2011, p. 72). It is unfair to suggest that the US, at this early phase of its involvement in Afghanistan, remained completely unprepared for a war with a counter-insurgency component as these contingencies actually worked to mitigate against insurgency.  Nevertheless, the US, and particularly its ISAF allies, was unprepared for the longevity and complexity of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan, embodied by enduring disparate ethnic rivalries and prejudices.

The emphasis on ‘shock and awe’ strategy (at work under the ‘Bush Doctrine’) changed to tactics encompassing peacekeeping, humanitarian and ANSF support missions by late 2002 and through to early 2003. Before the advent of the COIN Doctrine per se, ISAF had already developed tactics to suit the reality on the ground and the militarization of aid for the Afghan population was one such significant shift in strategy with immediate effectiveness. An example of this includes ISAF’s ‘Shape-Clear-Hold-Build’ counter-insurgency framework that placed detailed importance on intelligence (understanding local culture and environment) and stabilisation to protect the local communities. This framework also brought the Afghan police into collaboration with ISAF forces, thus initiating the transition towards the responsibility of Afghan security laying with the Afghanis themselves – the ultimate goal of ISAF (Thruelson, 2010, p. 261). Indeed, the shift away from the ‘shock and awe’ tactics of carpet bombings and pitched battles against an increasingly elusive Taliban saw the creation of ‘Civil Affairs Units’ and ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ (PRTs). These specialized units worked to integrate military with humanitarian objectives (such as building schools and hospitals) in an attempt to both win the trust of the local Afghan population and undermine the psychological hold of the Taliban. The success of initiatives such as PRTs depended on: resources continuing to be made available, and, importantly, for the US politicians and policymakers not to deviate from their commitment to such initiatives (such as the militarization of aid) (Kolhatkar & Ingalls, 2006, p. 59-60). The US not only deviated from such initiatives, but, departed from existing counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in lieu of preparation for invasion of Iraq in 2004. The premature President Bush ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech concerning Afghanistan in 2003 further set the tone for the country being, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. Critically, it was the US’s vacillating strategy or wavering commitment towards Afghanistan that undermined counterinsurgency progress against the Taliban through into the Obama administration from 2009.

The US abandonment of Afghanistan at the time of the invasion of Iraq harmed or diminished the overall strength of the NATO-led ISAF contingent, and particularly the morale and credibility of the counterinsurgency mission in place. Although the US still had a substantial presence in Afghanistan the shift in political focus alone gave the Taliban time to reassert its influence in the outlying provinces, particularly in the regions bordering Pakistan where the Taliban gained the advantages of reinforcement and concealment. That abandonment of Afghanistan, together with the neglect of Pakistan, critically undermined any possibility of success for its counterinsurgency strategy within Afghanistan. From 2004 to 2009 Pakistan was waging open war against the Taliban and other sectarian militant groups within its own borders. Although Pakistan avoided politically having US forces operating within its borders it did require American support, increasingly in a funding and intelligence capacity. Incidentally, the Pakistani military sustained heavy causalities in combat with the Taliban where it purportedly lost some “70 percent of its battles with the Taliban” (Bergen, 2013, p. 207). Furthermore, insurgency attacks in Pakistan that combined insurgent, terrorist and sectarian factions increased to 2,158 in 2009 (Lalwani, 2013, p. 207). To further illustrate that, 2004 to 2009 was a period of counterinsurgency neglect the United Nations (2007) ‘Opium Survey’ suggests that opium cultivation reached record highs, thereby undermining previous ISAF cash initiatives to dissuade Afghan farmers from producing the lucrative crop – the mainstay of the Taliban’s funding (p. ii-iv). Thus 2004 to 2009 saw the US abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan and failed to capitalise on previous successes ISAF may have had in regard to counter-insurgency strategy. That period also marked the resurgence of the Taliban. It would not be until 2009 that the US would reintervene in Afghanistan with a renewed sense of purpose and a new counter-insurgency doctrine.         

The rationale behind reverting military force and capability back into Afghanistan lay in both the US military’s occupation-styled experience in Iraq coupled with a worsening situation in Afghanistan. The Iraq war, like the engagement in Afghanistan, shared a similar transition from apparent swift from US military victory (seen in the relative ease in defeating the Iraqi Army and the deposing of Saddam Hussein) to protracted, bloody and volatile counter-insurgency war, resulting in both worsening fatalities and public opinion. By 2009 US domestic public and international opinion had turned sharply against continued military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the introduction of a new strategy revolving around counter-insurgency (administered to some degree of success by General Petreaus in Iraq from 2006) permitted US generals and strategists a new sense of hope. Hope also was the mantra permeating out of the US 2009 election when the newly elected President Obama remonstrated on a forced new approach to Afghanistan in the form of a 30,000 troop surge, along with the gradual withdrawal of US forces by 2011 (Saikal, 2014, p. 25). At the heart of the surge lay counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) principles. According to Karl Eikenberry (2013) COIN, set out in the Field Manual 3-24, stressed “the need to protect civilian populations, eliminate insurgent leaders and … establish a legitimate and accountable host-nation government able to deliver essential human services”; moreover, Eikenberry goes on to suggest that “[i]nsurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources”. The timeframe outlaid by Obama contradicts this assertion, and perhaps even the application of a surge in the first place, by not allowing the doctrine adequate time to meet its objectives, especially after years of US neglect in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, COIN would be applied to the Afghan theatre and remodelled to try and negate a rehabilitated Taliban insurgency.

One common criticism of COIN Doctrine is that its theoretical ideals do not amount to practical and tangible results on the ground. The reality is that it is difficult to assess COIN in the early years of its application within Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. This period was when the insurgency was at its most active. Despite initial heavy military losses, particularly through Improvised Explosions Devices (IEDs), COIN did provide a theoretical framework where NATO forces, by departing from ‘shock and awe’ tactics, endeavoured to allay military threat through indirect means (such a local mediation with tribal leaders), with an emphasis on cultural sensitivity (Svet, 2012). According to counter-insurgency analyst David Kilcullen, COIN Doctrine is a modern ‘bottom-up’, interventionist strategy built on local confidence, community-based security and peace-building, that theoretically translates into broader political success (‘Interview with David Kilcullen’, 2012, p. 589). Kilcullen also stresses the importance of his own theory: ‘The Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency’. By securing the ‘three pillars’ (Security, Political and Economic) the overall goal of control could be attained, along with the alienation of the insurgents from the local population (Kilcullen, 2006). Fernando Lujan (2012) also emphasised that COIN worked on the premise of “control and legitimacy on the ground”; where preferably small expert NATO teams, “steeped in local languages and cultures, comfortable with ambiguity”, could work with Afghan forces to build stable forms of governance at the local level. However such precise and in-depth local knowledge would realistically not be so readily available within the ISAF military force. The fragmented, complex and ethnically diverse nature of Afghanistan also made attempts to embed teams on the ground near impossible under the current time frame for the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Consequently COIN’s strategy of community-based security was often undermined by military force capability, particularly the case for the smaller European ISAF partners who lacked public support for war. Also critically lacking were military hardware (expenditure) and battle experience due in large part to a NATO-maintained peace in Western Europe as US, British and/or Australian military support were relied upon to varying degrees (Ringsmose & Borgesen, 2011, p. 505-506). Therefore, to evaluate the practical effectiveness of COIN this essay must evaluate the role and experience of the front-line ISAF soldier to better scrutinize their role shift from infantry soldier to one of COIN stabiliser and then eventually nation-builder.

The civil-military orientation of COIN also resulted in the transformation of combat roles and tactics for front-line soldiers in Afghanistan. Although a substantial component of the 2009 troop surge contained experienced US COIN specialists from Iraq, most of the ISAF forces already in Afghanistan were unsure on just how to apply COIN in the Afghan theatre (Mattelear, 2011, p. 132). It is also important to note that innovation in strategy, epitomised by COIN, does take time to work its way down successfully to the tactical level. This is particularly the case in COIN as it fundamentally departed from conventional combat psyche a career soldier may have embodied. COIN also placed improbable short-term expectations on combat units working in hostile regions, whilst calling for ‘courageous restraint’ under supreme stress in battle conditions (Sims, 2012). The occurrence of the ‘Green-on-Blue’ insider attacks (Afghan soldiers and police killing allied ISAF soldiers within a cooperative, small-unit setting) undermined the practical implementation of COIN at the grass-root level and understandably affected soldier morale. By 2012 ‘Green-on-Blue’ attacks were becoming a relatively common occurrence, thus terminating the trust or mutual respect that ISAF soldiers may have had for their ANSF colleagues (McKenna, 2014). It is reasonable to assume that being in hostile conflict, seemingly restrained in battle effectiveness by COIN strategy, coupled with ‘Green-on-Blue’ attacks, would altogether have left the individual ISAF combat soldier less than enthused in trying to win  the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population, as COIN ostensibly set out to achieve. Although COIN did have normative and progressive ambitions concerning the application of effective counterinsurgency strategy, the practical application seen through the eyes of ISAF soldiers may have fell short of meeting its lofty ideals. Moreover, although the COIN doctrine posits the importance of ‘bottom-up’ strategies, the neglect in regard to training and providing adequate protection and support for ISAF forces seems to contradict this assertion.      


So what set COIN apart from previous counter-insurgency tactics exhibited prior to 2004 in Afghanistan? The foremost principle of COIN lay in ISAF’s ability to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan population, however, the militarization of aid in 2002-2003 shared a similar system of belief whilst leaving ISAF forces with a greater combat capacity, and ultimately failed due to the US distraction in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, as discussed, undermined the political relationship between Afghanistan and the US. This had ramifications for the immediate effectiveness of COIN. As a strategy COIN depended on the functioning role of the Karzai Government and bipartisanship agreement between the US-led ISAF and Karzai himself who could wield considerable influence. It is important to note that by 2010 the Obama Administration did not share the same rapport or understanding with Karzai on matters concerning NATO’s role in Afghanistan, unlike the Bush Administration who kept the Afghan leader informed on US/NATO policy and strategy matters. Moreover, Karzai was becoming disillusioned by the way the US (and vice versa) would avoid or ignore his Government on Afghan security matters, including on how COIN would be implemented. The dismissal of General McChrystal for General Petreaus was one such error of judgment by Obama’s Administration. McChrystal, the stated ‘guru’ of COIN, had the trust of the Karzai Government. McChrystal understood the nuances of Afghani culture and could mediate with different tribal leaders to tangible effect. Karzai felt personally offended when Obama’s Administration replaced him without any adequate deliberation between the two leaders. It is credible to suggest that neither side achieved any degree of workable trust from the other on thereafter – including on how to fight the Taliban (Rashid, 2011, p. 75-76). By not sharing bipartisan agreement on matters of security, COIN in the Afghan context remains disadvantaged as a viable and effective counter-insurgency strategy response, at least at the political level.

In conclusion, the US and NATO counter-insurgency strategies have primarily undermined the Taliban insurgency for the time being at least, although current trends suggest control remains tenuous. These strategies have also facilitated mediation and better understanding between NATO and Afghan forces, particularly in the training and modernising of the Afghan National Army. The US and NATO counterstrategies enabled the construction of important infrastructure and brought tangible security to Afghan communities, especially larger metropolitan centres. In contrast, however, counter-insurgency strategies deployed in Afghanistan have polarised the political relationship between the US and successive Afghan political, community and religious leaders. It has exposed NATO forces to heightened stress and danger through the muddling of their combat roles and expectations. It is also doubtful whether counter-insurgency tactics and strategies ultimately won the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan people, nor will its normative agenda leave a legacy in Afghanistan, or even potentially in other Middle Eastern hotspots. The reality in Afghanistan remains precarious and problematic: there is real uncertainty surrounding whether ANSF will collapse following a NATO withdrawal in all its capacity. Also worrying is the expected resurgence in sectarian and tribal violence, particularly against the already persecuted Hazara minority. Domestically challenging for Afghanistan will be an escalating debt of foreign aid currently over 90 percent of Gross Domestic Product as well as unfettered political corruption. Thus one can only truly appraise the effectiveness - or ineffectiveness - of US and NATO counter-insurgency strategy by observing how Afghanistan progresses after the final NATO withdrawal.


Nathan Down is a lecturer and researcher in the fields of Politics, History and Communications at Charles Sturt University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He graduated from Macquarie University with a Master of International Relations.




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